Sunday, December 30, 2007

Final analysis: F5 Altbier

One of the things I'd like to start doing on this site is posting final tasting notes each brew, along with a picture. Anyway, first up is my F5 Altbier:

Style: Düsseldorf-style Altbier. Original gravity: 1052. Final gravity: 1011. ABV: 5.4%

Appearance: Slightly hazy, deep chestnut color; moderate beige head that quickly dissipates to about a quarter inch.

Smell: Sweet, bready malt smell up front, with a hint of grassy, herbal noble hops.

Taste: The malt hits up front, with flavors of molasses and honey. Very clean, no noticeable esters or phenols. As the malt dissipates, moderate hop bitterness takes over. The finish is herbal and grassy with the bitterness of grapefruit rind. A muddy bitterness lingers, with just a slight mineral bite.

Mouthfeel: Full-bodied but not too heavy. Moderate carbonation.

Drinkability: Very refreshing... bitter enough that you want another sip, but not overly so.

Final thoughts: I initially thought this was way overhopped, but after visiting Düsseldorf, I think the bitterness is right on. I tried this side-by-side with a bottle of Schlüssel Alt and I found this one to be heavier and less "bright" than Schlüssel. (I have this notion of "brightness" and "muddiness" that I've yet to translate into a vernacular anybody else can understand, but it's a distinction I also notice between porters I like and ones I don't.) I've started reading Horst Dornbusch's book on Altbier, and he says the yeast is essential. With that in mind, I'm thinking of trying the White Labs American Hefeweizen yeast next time. It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but the rumor is that the yeast originally came from Uerige via Widmer, and after drinking their beer on tap I can kind of see it. The beer isn't really estery, but neither are American Hefes, and it could provide that "brightness" I'm not getting from the White Labs German Ale/Kölsch yeast. The other thing I might do is re-examine the grain bill. I might cut out the specialty grains, lightening up the color and simplifying things for now. Overall, I think I brewed a good beer, but it's not even close to a true Düsseldorf Alt, which is what I'm going for.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve brew day: White Riot gluten-free Belgian wit

A beery meery Christmas to everybody in cyberspace! Traditions change over time, and due to some changes in our usual Christmas routine, we found ourselves with nothing to do on Christmas Eve until 7pm. The solution? Brew!

My good buddy Pete turned 30 earlier this month, and for his birthday I told him I would brew up a special beer. The catch? He was diagnosed with celiac disease some time after college, so this would be a gluten-free brew. The big three gluten-free beers out there are all relatively light lagers, where pretty much all the flavor comes from malt. Personally this doesn't make sense to me, since sorghum has a unique flavor that's different from barley. My thought was to pick a style where the predominant flavor ISN'T malt, so I went with a Belgian wit. Plus sorghum has a slight sour taste to it which is appropriate for the style. So today I brewed my first gluten-free beer: White Riot Belgian wit.

I'm not about to malt and mash sorghum, but fortunately most major brewing suppliers now manufacture sorghum extract. This made for a very quick brew day. I don't normally publish my recipes (God knows there are already enough recipes on the Internet), but since gluten-free brewing is relatively new, I'm going to provide all details here.

Since I can't use any wheat, barley or oats, I decided to go with just extract for my first gluten-free brew (I might experiment with toasting corn or rice in the future, but not yet). Due to the experimental nature of the brew, I'm only making 2 1/2 gallon batches, but here's the recipe scaled to a standard 5-gallon batch:

7 lb. white sorghum extract
.9 oz. Polish Marynka hops (60 min.)
.25 oz. bitter (curacao) orange peel (2o min.)
.25 oz. sweet orange peel (20 min.)
.3 oz. Polish Marynka hops (5 min.)
.25 oz. coriander (at flame-out)
8 oz. malto-dextrin
Safbrew T-58 dried yeast (rehydrated)

The brewing went as planned (not really much to screw up with a simple extract brew). The only quasi-issue was I forgot to take a gravity reading. The only wildcards here are: 1.) it's the first time I've used dried yeast (liquid yeast is propagated with malt extract, which is a no-no for gluten-free beer, while dried yeast is propagated with beet sugar); 2.) it's the first time I've used the Polish Marynka hops (due to the hop shortage; it smelled pretty much like your typical noble hop); 3.) it's the first time I've used malto-dextrin for body (sorghum is typically very light-bodied).

As you can see from the accompanying picture, the wort had an odd tan/slightly-green color to it (it actually looked very similar to the color of a typical liquid yeast). Nonetheless, I'm very excited to see how this turns out. Obviously my buddy Pete is even more excited, as he understandably misses being able to drink a "normal" beer. (On a side note, I had one poster on BeerAdvocate note that sorghum flavor doesn't need to be masked, it's just different... I understand this, but when you've had malt-based beer your whole life and suddenly can't have it any more, you kind of want to have a beer that tastes like a beer.)

I'll let you know how this turns out, and I would guess this won't be my last gluten-free beer. Actually, I'm really hoping to take a stab at a gluten-free Belgian strong ale. Stay tuned for updates...

Before I go, as a special Christmas treat, here's my all-time favorite Christmas carol (as you might expect from a guy who named his red ale "Road House Red"):

Safe and happy holidays to all!

UPDATE: When I got back from my Grandma's (around midnight) the carboy was already bubbling away. The weird thing, though, is there's no kraeusen. I don't know if this is common with sorghum, but it kind of makes sense since sorghum has a much thinner body (though I did add malto-dextrin, so I hope I added enough!).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Germany trip: concluding thoughts

Over the past couple weeks I've posted rather lengthy recaps of our November trip to Germany. If you've yet to read them, here are links to our posts on each region: Leipzig, Bamberg and Düsseldorf/Köln. I've made the posts rather thorough so they can serve both as a personal record (which is why I started this blog in the first place) and so they can be useful to others planning a trip to any/all of these cities. Anyway, to wrap things up I thought I'd do a final post (yes, after this I'll shut up about my Germany trip) that's basically what I learned from my trip. Here it goes...

1. Head is good

All jokes aside, Americans don't really seem to concern themselves with the proper head on a beer. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure most brewers (and homebrewers) pay attention to head retention, and many recipes call for adding wheat malt or dextrin malt to help form a rocky head. But that's only part of the equation. You also have to pour the beer properly. If you're pouring into a pint glass (which is meant for British ales with virtually no head), you'll either have too little head or too little beer. When I first studied in Germany I thought it was lame that the fill line on their glasses was so low... I'm getting ripped off, right? Well, now I understand that it's necessary to allow space for the head. And what does the head do? Well, besides simply making a beer look awesome (and presentation counts for something, right?), BeerAdvocate notes:

"The foam created by pouring a beer acts as a net for many of the volatiles in a beer. What's a volatile? Compounds that evaporate from beer to create its aroma, such as hop oils, all kinds of yeast fermentation byproducts like alcohol, fusels and fruity esters, spices or other additions. So a glass that promotes a healthy foam head may enhance the trapping of certain volatiles."

So, the bottom line is, head is important to a good beer, particularly if it's a German-style beer. Just one more variable for me to fret about while brewing.

2. Lagers are boring? Bullshit.

Two common misconceptions I hear among beer snobs: 1.) German beers are much more boring compared to, say, Belgians; and its more general corollary, 2.) lagers are much more boring than ales. Just this past week somebody posted on BeerAdvocate asking why lagers are more popular than ales when ales are so much more flavorful.

All I can say is head to Bamberg and then tell me lagers are boring, or that German beers can't stand up to Belgians. Now I'll grant you, Belgians do more funky things than Germans, and I understand why people appreciate that. But to draw a musical comparison, think of Belgians as the Beatles and Germans as the Rolling Stones. Sometimes you're in the mood for something experimental (e.g. Sgt. Pepper) and sometimes you're in the mood for something more basic and rootsy (e.g. Exile on Main St.). Doesn't mean one's better than the other. And in terms of flavor, a good Kellerbier, Bock or Rauchbier--fresh from the source--will challenge your perception of lagers. I think one problem is people associate German beer with Beck's and St. Pauli Girl. If you're going to do that, then judge Belgians by Stella. I think the other problem is that Germans, being more delicate than big Belgians, don't travel well, so it's hard to make an even comparison in the United States. Bottom line, however, is there's a world of flavors in German beer, even if most is limited by the Reinheitsgebot.

3. Americans may have to carry the torch of the German brewing tradition

After the 1960s, Americans took jazz for granted, and the greats began to tour Europe extensively, where they were better appreciated. I think there's a bit of a reversal of that going on with German beer. I found a lot of the pubs I visited to be filled with old-timers. The big push from the German beer industry right now is Diesel (half Coke, half beer) or Radler (half lemonade or Sprite, half beer). If you go in a grocery store, you see bottles of these concoctions taking up prime shelf space. And of course you see lots of Budweiser, Carlsberg, etc. Here I am, thousands of miles from home savoring the opportunity to try world-class beers, and the locals are drinking Coke mixed with a crappy pils. What the hell??? I know a lot of German breweries have felt the pinch of mass consolidation, but it's important that these traditions continue, and I hope that the influence of the American craft beer movement (which seems to be slowly spreading its tentacles worldwide) helps the German tradition survive.

4. America is the greatest place in the world for a beer lover to live

This may seem counterintuitive, as I clearly love German beer and I'm very jealous of the locals who can stop by Uerige or Spezial or Ohne Bedenken any time they want. However, I realized something while shopping for beer in Köln. I was less than 30 miles from Düsseldorf but I couldn't get any of the Altstadt Altbiers in a liquor store. I was 250 miles from Bamberg but I couldn't get any of their Kellerbiers or Rauchbiers. It's a mere 300 miles from Köln to Leipzig (the same distance as that between Chicago and St. Louis) but forget about finding a Gose in the Rheinland. Of course, back in Chicago (a mere 4248 miles away), I can get Reissdorf Kölsch, Uerige Sticke Alt, Schlenkerla Rauchbier and Bayerischer Bahnhof Gose at the better beer stores in town, not to mention beers from virtually every state in the U.S. and countries ranging from Brazil to Lithuania to Japan. I'm no expert, but I would guess that we Americans have greater access to more beers than anybody in the history of the world (save, perhaps, Michael Jackson).

Anyway, I think that's all I have to say about my Germany trip, and I'll finally shut up about it now. We will now return to our regular programming of me complaining about what went wrong on my brew days. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quick brewing updates

So, since I've been busy trying to catch up on my Germany trip posts, I haven't really posted anything about brewing lately. Just for the record...

The Christmas Bock was raised up to 65°F for a three day diacetyl rest right before I left for Germany, and my neighbor Matt was kind enough to come over every day and drop the fermenter thermostat 5°F until we got down to 35°F for lagering. Reached lagering temp on Nov. 15th and kegged when I got back from Germany (I want to say the 19th?). Final gravity was 1015. It's now under 20 psi of pressure, though it's pretty much carbonated. I'm going to start posting tasting notes from each beer (why wasn't I doing that earlier?) so look for that soon. So far it's clean and roasty and just about ready to serve. I would classify it as a Schwarzbock (too strong and malty for a Schwarzbier, but too roasty for a traditional Bock).

Next on the brewing agenda is a gluten-free beer for a buddy of mine who has celiac disease. I'm going to be a wuss and use sorghum extract, and I'm thinking of starting off with a Belgian wit, though I'd really like to try making a Belgian strong ale. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Germany trip recap part III: Düsseldorf and Köln

So, before I write about the last leg of our trip, a quick disclaimer: unlike the first two posts recapping our trip to Germany, this one is being written three weeks after the fact. It's funny how returning back to work gets in the way of recreational activities like blogging. That being said, here's my recap of Düsseldorf and Köln (a.k.a. Cologne).

After an extremely early train ride (courtesy of the Deutsch Bahn strike), we arrived in Köln early Thursday afternoon. We checked into our room and grabbed a Brat on the street, and next thing we knew we were on our way to Düsseldorf's Brauerei Schumacher. (For those of you unfamiliar with German geography, Düsseldorf is a mere 30-minute train ride from Köln.) It was important to arrive at Brauerei Schumacher--one of Düsseldorf's four traditional Altbier brewpubs--because they would be serving their Latzenbier. Literally translated as "slat-beer" because the casks are stored on slats in their cellar, it's a stronger version of their Altbier that's only served three times a year. Two things that will give you an idea of how popular the Latzenbier is: first, I saw several people walking out of the brewery with crates full of 1-liter swingtop bottles, and this was at 3pm; second, a local told me that the pub was devoid of its usual flowered decor because it would likely get destroyed by the end of the night. Given the fact that we were traveling with a fifteen-month-old, I guess it's good we got there early.

For those of you who don't know me, my favorite beer in the world is Uerige's Sticke Altbier, and Schumacher's Latzenbier is their version of the Sticke. My first homebrew to win a First Place ribbon was a Sticke that the judge compared favorably to Schumacher's Latzenbier (stating it was less bitter than Uerige's Sticke). Needless to say, I was very excited to try it. As is true of all the traditional Düsseldorf pubs, your beer is served in a .25 L Becher ("beaker"), and the waiter keeps track of how many you drink by marking your coaster with a dash. The Latzenbier arrived looking much like a regular Altbier: it was an amber-copper color with a rocky white head. It was much lighter than the Uerige Sticke (my only point of comparison). That was my first clue that the Latzenbier was really a different creature than a Sticke. Indeed, the Latzenbier really tasted like a stronger version of an Altbier, while Uerige's Sticke is more complex with more roasted notes. Further, I found the Latzenbier to be more delicate, with lots of fruity esters and a crisp hop finish, while the malts play a stronger role in the Uerige Sticke. Overall, I am grateful to have had the chance to try the Latzenbier fresh on tap, but I much prefer Uerige's Sticke. Oh, I should also note that the original Schumacher brewpub (which is just outside the Altstadt) is a very cool place, even if it didn't have its usual flowers, etc. It's a large beer hall with wooden beams everywhere; it's gotta be really sweet in the summer when the Biergarten is open.

After leaving Schumacher, we decided to head over to Uerige (which was featuring their regular Altbier, not the Sticke). I had tried their regular Altbier once in the States, but generally you only find their Sticke or Doppelsticke. We knew we had come to the Uerige pub when we found a giant pile of spent grains dumped in the middle of the street (see the accompanying picture). Of course, I had to try the grain, and I decided they get way more efficiency than I do, as it had virtually no sweetness to it at all. The pub itself was super crowded, so we drank at a table outside. The Düsseldorf pubs are so dependent on outside patrons that they have giant heaters to comfort their outdoor customers. It was crazy to be drinking outside in 30° F weather.

To my surprise, I didn't really care for their Altbier much. It's known as the most bitter Altbier in Düsseldorf, and it was much more bitter on tap than I remember from their bottled, imported variety (which makes sense, since hops tend to mellow with age). It didn't have quite the grapefruity bite that a hoppy American IPA has, but it was sort of a cross between grapefruit and apricot. Overall, it was just too assertive for me. Given my reverence for Uerige, I was taken aback, but I've never been a hophead so I suppose it's a matter of personal preference. I heard from a reliable source that they will soon be exporting their Altbier in kegs to the U.S., and I'll be curious to try it again at that time and see how bitter it is. One other interesting note... I had heard from various sources that White Labs' American Hefeweizen yeast is the yeast used by Widmer to brew their Hefe, which in turn was taken from Uerige. I know Widmer's Hefe doesn't have the characteristic banana and clove notes that German Hefes do, but it always seemed weird to me that it could be used in an Altbier. However, after tasting the fruity esters found in Uerige's Alt (and in the other Düsseldorf Alts as well), I think it makes sense and I'm planning on using it for my next Alt.

The next day we enjoyed Köln and its local beverage of choice: Kölsch. Like Altbier, Köln's light-colored ale is served in small glasses (in this case a .2 L Stange). We had lunch at Ausschank Pfaffen Brauerei, which has a wonderful Kölsch. It's light and clean, slightly floral, with just a hint of graininess. Personally, I think it's the ultimate gateway beer for Bud-Miller-Coors drinkers. It's light enough for them to enjoy, but even the most hardcore beer geek can appreciate the balance and detail in this brew. At Pfaffen, we also discovered another local delicacy: Goulaschsuppe, or goulash soup. It's a meaty, tomato-based soup that's almost as hearty as a stew or chili but has a unique spice to it (heavy on the paprika, naturally). It's served with a Brötchen roll on the side, and when we dipped a piece of the roll into the soup and handed it to Dorrie, she proceeded to suck the soup off of it and hand it back to us to dip again. Wonderful stuff. I also enjoyed my entree very much, though three weeks later I can't recall exactly what it was. That night we grabbed Döners for dinner and I washed it down with a nice Königsbacher Dunkel Kellerbier. I also decided to try a Malzbier (essentially unfermented beer, sickly sweet, that's marketed as a cross between a pop and an energy drink). Let's just say the Malzbier was an interesting experience, but not one I'd like to try again.

On Saturday, we headed back to Düsseldorf to try the other Altstadt Altbiers. First on our list was Brauerei Im Füchschen. All I can say is wow. This was by far my favorite Altbier. It seemed slightly maltier and "brighter" than Uerige. It had the typical Altbier bitterness, but it more well balanced and lacked the apricot/grapefruit bite. This was a beer I could drink all day, every day. On a side note, we tried a Mainz cheese to go along with our beer. The waiter warned us it was stinky, which I interpreted as something along the lines of a strong Parmesan. Um, no. It smelled, and tasted, like a barn. It was actually too much for me, though Leah said it was better with caraway seeds (which I hate and scraped off my half of the cheese). Crazy stuff, and I'm glad I tried it for the experience, but next time I'll pass.

After Im Füchschen, we stopped by Schumacher's Altstadt pub to try their regular Altbier. I found it to be somewhere in between Uerige and Im Füchschen: not as malty as Im Füchschen, but not as bitter as Uerige. Our final stop was Brauerei Schlüssel. I found Schlüssel to be the nuttiest and driest of the Alts. Excellent, but I like my Alts a little maltier. We also had another Goulaschsuppe at Schlüssel. Damn, that's good stuff. I'm sad to say that Schlüssel would be the last Alt consumed from the tap in Germany. I have a few bottles I brought back with me, but I have a feeling it won't be the same.

Upon returning to Köln for our last German dinner, we ate at Weinhaus Vogel, where I had good potato pancakes and awesome Jäger Schnitzel. I enjoyed a Gaffel Kölsch with my dinner and then noticed something on the menu called "Hopfenblut" (literally "hop blood"). Of course I had to try it. I suppose I would describe it as a Dunkel version of Kölsch, to the extent that it was darker in color and had the same light fruitiness I associate with Kölsch. Despite its color, it didn't really have any roasted or toasted notes to it, but rather a slight caramel sweetness. It was also unusually under-hopped, especially for something with "hopf" in its name. Nonetheless, in a city where most bars and restaurants only serve one type of beer, it was an interesting change of pace and worth seeking out for anybody in Köln (the restaurant is a 10-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof).

The next morning it was off to the airport, and "auf wiedersehen" to Germany. Here's hoping we return soon! Prost!

Jump to Part IV: Concluding Thoughts.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Happy Repeal Day!

For more info, check out this link.

To celebrate, I just might post the wrap-up from the Duesseldorf/Koeln portion of my Germany trip.

Or not.